Is Glee the new American Idol? Could be. Certainly, Glee has momentum at the moment, and American Idol after a long and spectacular run in the first moments of its decline. This image, from Google trends, shows Glee over taking American Idol some time in the last quarter…at least as a search term on line.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Glee is the new American Idol. We may not be correct but we do at least have the opportunity for speculation that would not otherwise occur to us, and with this, we have the opportunity for an early warning. (The Chief Culture Officer is prepared to be wrong much of the time in order to be "sighted" some of the time.)
Some things don’t seem to change at all. Both shows seem devoted to the endless recitation of popular culture that is actually not all that popular anymore. American Idol seems determined to ignore most of what has happened to music since the 1990s. Glee the same. (Readers of this blog will know that I take these to be one of several indicators that the "alternative" sensibility of the 1990s is now on the wane. More evidence? The decline of Parks and Recreation and Community and of NBC and the now departed Ben Silverman who used to work there.)
But there are some interesting differences. American Idol devotes itself to intensely personal stories, as kids claw their way to the top. It’s all terribly authentic. Some of the point of the exercise is to get to know these kids, to root for them, to watch a star being born. Glee on the other hand is an exercise in flat out artifice. We don’t get to know the "real" actors beneath the characters and there isn’t very much to get to know about the characters themselves. This is musical theater, with much more emphasis on the music than the theater. Indeed, the Glee plot is finally just a device for song and dance delivery. There is some dramatic continuity, some dramatic tension, but its exists for the purposes of cheap sentiment more than character development.
Indeed, Glee appears designed for modularity. We can break kids out for song and dance purposes and we can drop celebrities in. I noticed today that show co-creator Ryan Murphy is suggesting that Susan Boyle appear as a lunch lady. And with this the possibilities are endless. Wayne Newton as the janitor can’t be far away. Just so long as you are recognizable and can burst into song. And this really is artifice. Now every actor and character is just a place keeper, a pretext for the infusion of more music.
At their best, the 1990s were a time of unstinting authenticity. I remember an editor of an alternative music magazine telling me that he couldn’t get photos of the bands he was covering because the bands insisted that a photo would demand that they "pose" and that was precisely the sort of falsehood their music was designed to refuse.
Pose? In the era of Glee, it’s "where would you like me? And what expression should I wear?" It’s not about authenticity. It’s about being as emotionally compliant as necessary. Stardom is so precious a capital, we will pay anything for it. We will endure TMZ coverage and much, much worse.
By this reckoning, and it’s only a reckoning, American culture is now governed by the rules of musical theater, where kids live for the "one big break," and make any compromise necessary to get there. This takes us several light years away from the sensibility that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s. Chrystal Bowersox has something of this sensibility, and her victory, if that’s what happens on American Idol, may be last hurrah.
Stack, Tim. 2010. Susan Boyle to play McKinley High Lunch Lady. Entertainment Weekly. May 19. here.